Perspectives: Educating as if Survival Matters

Perspectives: Educating as if Survival Matters

Educating as if Survival Matters

Nancy M Trautmann Michael P Gilmore
BioScience, Volume 68, Issue 5, 1 May 2018, Pages 324–326, https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biy026

Published:
22 March 2018

ver the past 40 years, environmental educators through­out the world have been aiming to motivate and empower students to work toward a sustainable future, but we are far from having achieved this goal. Urgency is evident in the warning issued by more than 15,000 scientists from 184 countries: “to prevent widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss, humanity must practice a more environmentally sustainable alternative to business as usual… Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory, and time is running out. We must recognize, in our day-to-day lives and in our governing institutions, that Earth with all its life is our only home” (Ripple et al. 2017).

In this tumultuous era of eco­catastrophes, we need every child to grow up caring deeply about how to live sustainably on our planet. We need some to become leaders and all to become environmentally minded citizens and informed voters. Going beyond buying greener products and aiming for energy efficiency, we must find ways to balance human well-being, economic prosperity, and environmental quality. These three overlapping goals form the “triple bottom line,” aiming to protect the natural environment while ensuring economic vitality and the health of human communities. This is the basis for sustainable development, defined by the United Nations as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED 1987). Strong economies of course are vital, but they cannot endure at the expense of vibrant human societies and a healthy environment.

Within the formal K–12 setting, a primary hurdle in teaching for sustainability is the need to meaningfully address environmental issues within the constraints of established courses and curricular mandates. In the United States, for example, the Next Generation Science Standards designate science learning outcomes for grades K–12 (NGSS 2013). These standards misrepresent sustainability challenges by portraying them as affecting all humans equally, overlooking the substantial environmental justice issues evident within the United States and throughout the world. Another oversight is that these standards portray environmental issues as solvable through the application of science and technology, neglecting the potential roles of other sources of knowledge (Feinstein and Kirchgasler 2015).

One might argue that K–12 students are too young to tackle looming environmental issues. However, they are proving up to the challenge, such as through project-based learning in which they explore issues and pose potential solutions. This may involve designing and conducting scientific investigations, with the possibility of participating in citizen science. Case-study research into teen involvement in community-based citizen science both in and out of school settings revealed that the participants developed various degrees of environmental science agency. Reaching beyond understanding of environmental science and inquiry practices, this term’s definition also includes confidence in one’s ability to take positive stewardship actions (Ballard et al. 2017). The study concluded that the development of environmental science agency depended on involving teens in projects that included these three factors: investigating complex social–ecological systems with human dimensions, ensuring rigorous data collection, and disseminating scientific findings to authentic external audiences. Educators interested in undertaking such endeavors can make use of free resources, including an ever-growing compendium of lesson plans for use with citizen-science projects (SciStarter 2018) and a downloadable curriculum that leads students through the processes of designing and conducting their own investigations, especially those inspired by outdoor observations and participation in citizen science (Fee 2015).

We need to provide opportunities for students to investigate environmental issues, collect and analyze data, and understand the role of science in making informed decisions. But sustainability challenges will not be resolved through scientific approaches alone. Students also need opportunities to connect deeply with people from drastically different cultures and think deeply about their own lifestyles, goals, and assumptions. As faculty members of the Educator Academy in the Amazon Rainforest, we have had the privilege of accompanying groups of US teachers through 10-day expeditions in the Peruvian Amazon. Last summer, we asked Sebastián Ríos Ochoa, leader of a small indigenous group living deep in the rainforest, for his view of sustainability. Sebastián responded that he and his community are one with the forest—it is their mother, providing life and wholeness. Reflecting on the changes occurring at an accelerating rate even in remote rainforest communities, Sebastián went on to state that his greatest wish is for his descendants to forever have the opportunity to continue living at one with their natural surroundings (Sebastián Ríos Ochoa, Maijuna Community Leader, Sucusari, Peru, personal communication, 18 July 2017). After decades of struggle during which their rainforest resources were devastated by outside loggers and hunters (Gilmore 2010), this indigenous group has regained control over their ancestral lands and the power to enact community-based conservation practices. Their efforts provide compelling examples of how people (no matter how few in number and how marginalized) can effect positive change.

In collaboration with leaders of Sebastián’s remote Peruvian community and a nongovernmental organization with a long history of working in the area, US educators are creating educational resources designed to instill this same sense of responsibility in children growing up without such direct connections to nature. Rather than developing a sense of entitlement to ecologically unsustainable ways of life, we need children to build close relationships with the natural world, empathy for people with different ways of life, and a sense of responsibility to build a better tomorrow. Although the Amazon rainforest is a common topic in K–12 and undergraduate curricula, typically it is addressed through textbook readings. Instead, we are working to engage students in grappling with complex real-world issues related to resource use, human rights, and conservation needs. This is accomplished through exploration of questions such as the following: (a) How do indigenous cultures view, interact with, and perceive their role in the natural world, and what can we learn from them? (b) How do our lives influence the sustainability of the rainforest and the livelihoods of the people who live there? (c) Why is the Amazon important to us, no matter where we live? (d) How does this relate to the triple-bottom-line goal of balancing social well-being, economic prosperity, and environmental protection?

Investigating the Amazon’s impacts on global weather patterns, water cycling, carbon sequestration, and biodiversity leads students to see that the triple bottom line transcends cultures and speaks to our global need for a sustainable future for humans and the environment throughout the world. Tracing the origin of popular products such as cocoa and palm oil, they investigate ways to participate in conservation initiatives aiming for ecological sustainability both at home and in the Amazon.

Another way to address global issues is to have students calculate the ecological footprint attributable to their lifestyles, leading into consideration of humankind vastly overshooting Earth’s ability to regenerate the resources and services on which our lives depend. In 2017, August 2 was determined to be the date on which humanity had overshot Earth’s regenerative capacity for the year because of unsustainable levels of fishing, deforestation, and carbon dioxide emissions (Earth Overshoot Day 2017). The fact that this occurs earlier each year is a stark reminder of our ever-diminishing ability to sustain current lifestyles. And as is continually illustrated in news of climate disasters, human societies with small ecological footprints can be tragically vulnerable to such calamities (e.g., Kristof 2018).

Engaged in such activities, students in affluent settings may end up deriving solutions that shake the very tenet of the neoliberal capitalistic societies in which they live. To what extent should students be encouraged to challenge the injustices and entitlements on which world economies currently are based, such as by seeking ways to transform the incentive structures under which business and government decisions currently are made? Should they be asked to envision ways of overturning the unsustainable ways in which modern societies deplete resources, emit carbon dioxide, and destroy the habitats needed to support diverse forms of life on Earth?

Anyone who gives serious consideration to the environmental degradation and social-injustice issues in today’s world faces the risk of sinking into depression at the thought of a hopeless future. What can we possibly accomplish that will not simply be too little, too late? Reflecting on this inherent tension, Jon Foley (2016) stated, “If you’re awake and alive in the twenty-first century, with even an ounce of empathy, your heart and mind are going to be torn asunder. I’m sorry about that, but it’s unavoidable — unless you simply shut down and turn your back on the world. For me, the only solution is found in the space between awe and anguish, and between joy and despair. There, in the tension between two worlds, lies the place we just might find ourselves and our life’s work.”

Education for sustainability must build on this creative tension, capturing students’ attention while inspiring them to become forces for positive change.

Acknowledgments

Collaboration with the Maijuna is made possible through work of the OnePlanet nonprofit organization (https://www.oneplanet-ngo.org) and Amazon Rainforest Workshops (http://amazonworkshops.com).

Funding statement

Nancy Trautmann was supported through a fellowship with the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich, Germany, to develop curricular resources that highlight the Maijuna to inspire U.S. youth to care about conservation issues at home and abroad.

References cited

Ballard HL, Dixon CGH, Harris EM. 2017.

Youth-focused citizen science: Examining the role of environmental science learning and agency for conservation. Biological Conservation 208: 65–75.

 

Earth Overshoot Day. 2017. Earth Overshoot Day 2017 fell on August 2. Earth Overshoot Day. (1 December 2017; www.overshootday.org)

 

FeeJM. 2015. BirdSleuth: Investigating Evidence. Cornell Lab of Ornithology . (15 January 2018; http://www.birdsleuth.org/investigation/)

 

FeinsteinNW, KirchgaslerKL. 2015.

Sustainability in science education? How the Next Generation Science Standards approach sustainability, and why it matters. Science Education 99: 121–144.

 

Foley J.2016. The space between two worlds. Macroscope . (28 October 2016; https://themacroscope.org/the-space-between-two-worlds-bc75ecc8af57)

 

Gilmore MP. 2010. The Maijuna: Past, present, and future . 226–233 in Gilmore MP, Vriesendorp C,Alverson WS, del CampoÁ, von MayR, WongCL, OchoaSR, eds. Perú: Maijuna. The Field Museum.

 

KristofN.2018. Swallowed by the sea. New York Times. (23 January 2018 ; www.nytimes.com/2018/01/19/opinion/sunday/climate-change-bangladesh.html)

 

[NGSS] Next Generation Science Standards. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. NGSS. (10 October 2017; www.nextgenscience.org)

 

Ripple WJ et al.  2017. World scientists’ warning to humanity: A second notice. BioScience

67: 1026–1028.

 

SciStarter. 2018. SciStarter for Educators. SciStarter . (12 February 2018; https://scistarter.com/educators)

 

[WCED] World Commission on Environment and Development. 1987. Our Common Future . Oxford University Press.

 

© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Institute of Biological Sciences.

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/), which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. For commercial re-use, please contact journals.permissions@oup.com

 

Blog: Teacher Preparation

Blog: Teacher Preparation


Know and Do What We Teach: How many times are we assigned to teach a subject we know little about?

by Jim Martin
CLEARING Special Contributor

t a riparian ecology training for teachers a few years ago, I met two who epitomize a perennial problem in education in America. One of the teachers was in her third year of teaching, said she had no background in science, was never trained for teaching it, but was assigned to teach all of the 6th grade science in her middle school. The other was a teacher who had been a fisheries biologist for several years, and was now teaching high school science. Two teachers, each of whom is assumed will deliver equally effective, student-empowering curricula in their schools. Who are assumed to be teaching at the same level of experience and expertise. How do we rationalize this? How do we deal with it?

Many teachers who lack confidence in teaching the content they are assigned forces them to simply use and parrot the instructions in teachers’ editions of their assigned curricular materials. If we are simply in the schools to prepare our students for the standards tests they will take, adhering to the status quo may be able to make the attempt; although, to date, this effort has produced no nation-wide positive result. But, if we are in schools to involve and invest our students in authentic and challenging concept-based curriculum, and to deliver our curricula in a way which empowers them as persons, then we all need to comprehend the concepts we teach at a level which makes us comfortable in determining our own ways to deliver our curricula. The only way to do that is to know and do what we teach.

As long as we are able to build a learning environment which involves and invests our students in their learnings and empowers them as persons, their brains will do the work. While there are many reasons posited for the poor performance of US students compared with their global peers, assumptions about student capacity based on demographics ought not to matter, not be a reason for poor performance; the brain is an autonomous learning machine. If we allow it.

Why should I want more than a good set of published curricular materials?

All teachers of empowered students that I’ve observed have a content background strong enough to allow them to design their own curricular deliveries. And their students, regardless of demographics, respond to this in a positive, participating way. I’ve also observed teachers with little or no background in the curricular content and/or grade level they are assigned to teach become exceptional teachers when they receive competent mentoring in their classrooms while they are teaching. Just as with their students, these teachers’ brains became autonomous learning machines when they were allowed to. Our expectations re teachers’ preparation for the content they are assigned to teach is a strong indicator that many of us do not allow that. They are assigned to teach what they are assigned to teach. Beyond that, most receive precious little support in the way of developing professional competence in their assigned content area.

Would we accept a world in which only about half of automobile mechanics have training to repair the motors they work on? Where half of dentists have the training to perform a root canal on their root canal patients? How about only half of surgeons with training for the surgeries they perform? Only half of lawyers with training for the cases they proceed with in the court? Half the baristas with no training for the coffees they produce in the coffee shops where they work? We have, and assume, the right to people who have had effective training for the work they perform. Except for teachers. It’s almost as if there is an assumption that teachers can “just do it.” In fact, I’ve heard this claim. More than once.

So, why are we so complacent about having teachers in classrooms who may be only marginally trained in the content they deliver? Jaime Escalante taught calculus to students at Garfield High School in Los Angeles, where 85 percent of the students were eligible for free or reduced-fee meals, and faculty morale was low (Scientific American, Aug 2011, p. 14: Stand and Deliver). His unpopular, to some, attitude toward his students’ brains’ capacity for learning was displayed in a banner in his classroom which declared, “Calculus does not have to be made easy – It is easy already”. In spite of opposition from the school administration and some faculty to his teaching, more of his students took the AP calculus exam than at all but three other public schools in the nation. Two thirds of his students passed the exam. He possessed a background in calculus which allowed him to develop and execute a very clear demonstration that the brain is an autonomous learning machine when we allow it. And proved it.

In a recent article, Climate confusion among U.S. teachers: Teachers’ knowledge and values can hinder climate education, published in the 12 February 2016 issue of Science magazine, the authors report that fewer than 25% of teachers have the training they need to teach the basics of global warming. This, in spite of the fact that climate change may be the most important challenge that today’s students and their children will face. Why aren’t schools allowed to provide the training their teachers need to become more effective teachers of climate change in their classrooms? A large fraction of the business world does just that. Especially when there is a demonstrated authentic need for it.

What do I need in addition to good curricular materials to better prepare my students for their future?

A suggestion: I submit that we need to work together to develop an effective method to ensure that teachers have access to the training and support they need to teach inquiry-based science in their classrooms. Every day. We don’t think of students as the people who will set our nation’s place among the other nations in the world, but they are. We need more than a small fraction of K-12 students who excel in school. My experience tells me that nearly all students have the capacity to either excel, or do very well in school. Dysfunctional families can certainly hold their children back, and schools have very little influence over what happens at home. But, they ought to have influence over what happens at school. That’s where their power lies.

Schools, can, and do, produce environments in which all of their students can excel, or at the least, do very well. For instance, one school I’ve known for a long time does just that. The Jane Goodall Environmental Middle School (JGEMS), a public charter school in Salem, OR, does that consistently every year. Entering students are selected via a lottery which covers Salem’s demographic spectrum. While the faculty don’t focus on the standards, each year 100% of their students pass the standards exams, 90% or more at the two highest levels. Oddly enough, all of their teachers have strong backgrounds in the content they teach.

In many of these cases, teachers have engaged in summer workshops and institutes which deliver hands-on experience in doing science inquiries they have conceived, designed, and executed in natural environments, and using those experiences to develop in-depth content knowledge of the subject of their inquiries. This is a context in which regional environmental educators and experienced teachers can collaborate to plan and execute workshops and institutes which can provide the training and support to produce classrooms which are facilitated by teachers who are experienced in science inquiry and have deep knowledge of the content they teach. And which deliver students who are involved and invested in their educations; and empowered as persons. A strong content and process background gives teachers the confidence it takes to deliver a student-centered, active-learning based curriculum. Something we all need to learn to do. Well.

How can you help?

jimphoto3This is a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests, and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”

Jim Martin on Inquiry

Jim Martin on Inquiry

Is active learning an effective vehicle to train science inquiry mentors?

Walking along with you is far better than telling you “I’ll show you the way.”

ow should we prepare mentors of teachers who wish to learn how to engage their students in authentic science inquiry, to provide what they will need for the work they will do? Should we get them together and show them what to do? Or, engage them in active learning focused on mentoring, and respond to what emerges? I know from my various experiences in being trained that listening to a speaker, then watching from a distance as the speaker demonstrates an activity, does next to nothing for me. When I arrive to do the work I was trained for, I’m not sure where to start. There, on site, bright smiling face, but a little uncertain just what to do. When my training has me actually doing the work, I arrive on site ready to go; looking forward to doing the work. So, I think I’ll describe mentor training via, mostly, active learning.

What is mentor training via active learning like?

Since classroom teachers will probably find doing a first field trip on their own a bit daunting, we’d start the teacher/environmental educator mentors-in-training doing just that. They’ll do a training, more or less on their own. First, we’d group them in pairs, then have them move through three or four stations representing those that students would move through on their first field trip. Participants’ first job at this training will be to decide how to do the work at each of the stations, say, “Streamside Vegetation.” As they go, these mentors-in-training will share what they know about the station they are visiting, and how they would assist an inexperienced teacher to become comfortable doing that station.

At each station, there would be a poster board, Post-Its, and a felt pen. The board would have the name of the station on it, and the rest of the space for questions and comments. For this training, the questions and comments would relate to the work of mentoring inexperienced teachers as they go to a natural site to do the work at this station for the first time. As they work out the way they think the station would be best done, they will make comments on the Post-Its and place them on the board. As the concept clarifies itself, they might wish to move the Post-Its around to reflect this.

After they organize the Post-Its on the boards as they wish, they will decide on outcomes for that particular station, what the students who visit it will take away from their experiences. Then, they will decide how the station will be introduced to students. Hopefully, they will have clarified the purpose of and function of the station, and they can decide on a rationale, a mission statement of sorts, for that station. A training done this way, not a talking head, telling them about it, but an active way of discovering it for themselves. All of this will go to the board on Post-Its, or, if they are sure of what they’ve done, they would use the felt pen to mark off a heading and space for the Post-Its that go under that heading.

Then, they will organize themselves to do the work of the station, and do it. While working, they would engage in an interactive dialog as they move along; clarifying, suggesting, and making recommendations which emerge from their experiences at that station. When they’re finished, they may wish to modify or add to the Post-Its on the board. After completing this station, they will rotate to the next one, where they will repeat the process. As they go, they will add Post-Its of their own, rearrange them, and add a heading if they think it should be a permanent part of the board. They continue until they’ve completed the work at all stations. (This exercise was first introduced to me by Rebecca Martin, when she used it in a Salmon Watch teacher training. I call it a concept-induction exercise. Some call it an ideation exercise. It’s very effective. I’ve even used it to focus a meeting to plan a performance center in Vancouver, WA, where I live.)

What might mentors-in-training take away from this active learning exercise?

At the end, after all groups have visited all stations, the entire group will do a walk through the stations, pointing out curricular elements embedded in the environment, listing equipment that would be needed or helpful in doing the work, noting safety measures for particular parts of each station, sharing what they’ve learned, discussing the work to understand it better and suggest modifications. As part of this, they will review each updated poster board (which remained on station), and nail down their recommendations, etc. At the end, they will suggest next steps, which might be no change needed, or some further changes.

When this has been done, the mentors should be able to have moved inexperienced teachers to a place where they can, with time, become teachers who confidently move their students, via active learning in a natural environment, toward the knowledge, skills, and understandings they will need to respond to the effects of climate change effectively. The purpose of all these words.

jimphoto3This is a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests, and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”

Jim Martin on Science Inquiry

Jim Martin on Science Inquiry

Can We Learn What Science Inquiry Does For Us? What To Teach; And How?

 

by Jim Martin

n a previous blog, a student, Maria, noticed a salmon fry darting toward a rock covered with periphyton, a thin colony of algae which supports microbes and invertebrates living in it. Her eye lit up as she became aware of it; a wonderful learning moment, the kind which lights up our brain.

How do you learn to recognize when Maria’s eye has noticed something, and made a conceptual connection with it? What experiences ought you have to recognize that moment and use it effectively? Then to follow up? How did we get here in the first place? We’re exploring the use of inquiries outside the classroom to discover how to use active learning effectively. And, while doing that, to discover and use the curricular content embedded in the world outside the classroom. How do we help teachers become comfortable with this?

Does what we teach reside solely in our curricular materials? 

We do inquiries; do we ever ask what inquiries do for us? One thing that student-directed inquiries do is to use the way our brain learns best, which should be driving our deliveries. When we begin a new learning, it will more than likely possess latent connections to previous conceptual learnings stored in associative memory in our brain. If we can organize a student’s environment so that this might happen, then we have set up an environment where conceptual learning will occur. Our brain is an autonomous learning machine when it encounters something interesting in the world about. We set this in motion when we organize a student’s environment so that a question will more than likely emerge from it. When this becomes part of the foundation our teaching is based upon, conceptual learnings become a normal product of our classrooms.

Some students, like Maria, will rather quickly note a connection between what they observe at the moment, and what they already know. These students, engaging what Lev Vygotsky described as a zone of proximal development, will provide, by what they say and do, the pieces of the puzzle for those who have not yet attained the new concept; not yet seen the connection between what they observe, and what they already know. Yet, whose brains already hold all of the relevant pieces. This capacity to see and make connections is something I’ve observed that all students will develop as long as they are in an environment where active learning is routinely engaged. Since self-directed inquiries stimulate our brain to engage in critical thinking and conceptual learnings, that is precisely what inquiries do for us. Build autonomous, thinking brains.

Does conceptual learning only occur when students engage curricular materials in our classrooms?

How do we get there, the place where autonomous, thinking brains develop? You have to know the things students will encounter as they learn, then direct them to those pieces which have the capacity to engage human interest. In the previous blog, we discussed the idea of a teacher in-service workshop in which teachers, environmental educators, and a regional environmental education center might be used to help classroom teachers become comfortable with science inquiry in a natural environment. In this pilot workshop, we posited starting with a science inquiry training in which teachers would engage concrete entities in a natural area. Those who I have worked with in workshops like this have always experienced the way that simply engaging teachers in particulars of the place they are in stimulates questions which are easily turned into effective inquiries.

Noticing something which catches your interest has a way of stimulating you to want to know more about it. Everything could end right there, and you might continue on your way. If, as you move along, you encounter another of the thing which caught your interest, you will notice it, and may even raise a question about it. This is the way your brain works when it is engaged in conceptual learning. We need to learn to use it routinely in our teaching. It leads to long-term conceptual understandings. Not items to recall on a test, but conceptual information which seems just common sense.

If you were a participant in the in-service workshop I mentioned above, and you encountered something interesting which raised a question in your mind, there would be teacher-mentors and environmental educators there to help you locate resources, etc., but not to tell you what to think and do to answer it. Your brain, not theirs, is the one that’s learning. (Likewise in our own classrooms; the students, not we, need to do the learning!) Then, there would be a follow-up on questions and/or insights entrained by the science inquiry process. (My own students would review and research more information than I could teach via a conventional deliveries.) The important thing is that much of what you find and process in your brain will remain as conceptual associative memory, available on demand. Even when, in your classroom in May, you ask students to recall what they learned when they did such and such an inquiry in October. It does work.

Maria went on to learn about the salmon fry and periphyton colonies she met while she was on site at the stream. Most of what she learned came from her observations in the real world, researching information about them on the web, and reading in the texts in her classroom. More learning than a teacher can deliver by teaching the whole class one piece at a time. The trick is to organize the work so that each student or group contributes a nice piece of the overall learning. Sharing brings it all together. Enough teachers, and schools, have successfully adopted active learning deliveries that we ought to be encouraging it in our schools, our districts, and our state departments of education.

Many classroom teachers don’t have a strong background in the science they teach. We, the classroom teachers, need to develop a systemic way to build a strong content background in the concepts that we teach. Formidable hurdle, but it can be done. Since I first started tracking it in the early 1970s, about half of U.S. teachers have had little or no college-level preparation for the content they teach. We’re assigned to teach it anyway because there’s no one else to do it; we’re coaches who need a full-time salary, our principal assigns us to teach it, etc. How would our tech sector do if they applied the same staffing model? For now, we are the ones who have to take up the slack. We need to work together to build our capacity to effectively engage our students in the excitement and comprehension of science in the real world. We may not solve the problem, but I know from experience that we can make a dent in it. We’ll take that up as we go along.

jimphoto3This is a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests, and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”

Classroom without walls

Classroom without walls

Stepping Into Nature 2013June04

“Mr. D., that was the best science class I’ve ever had!”

The trials and successes of a classroom without walls

By Greg Derbyshire

T3he above feedback, made by a grade 8 student, is one of many similar comments made to me by students and parents who recognize and appreciate the opportunities provided by outdoor experiential education. That’s why I took students outdoors when I was a classroom teacher. Not for the accolades or ego stroking, but for the knowledge that I reached many students in a way that can’t be done inside the walls of a classroom. Few of us need to be informed of screen-time statistics when it comes to our modern society. A growing body of research is supporting what many of us know inherently, and the long-term impacts of the loss of exposure to the natural world are mounting. We now know that connecting with the natural world benefits many aspects of our being. Physical, social, spiritual, and mental health improve when we spend more time outdoors. Bullying decreases, ADHD symptoms are reduced, and social and cultural barriers diminish. For many of us, we know that we have an obligation as teachers to expose our students to the outdoors; it may be the only opportunity many of them get.

Herding Cats

The last class of my indoor teaching career was one of the nicest groups of grade 7 and 8s I’d had the pleasure of working with. They were energetic, creative, and enthusiastic. They weren’t, however, good listeners. During the first couple of weeks of September, I tried to help them develop better listening skills.

The usual strategies didn’t work; being late for gym class bothered them, but didn’t change their attentiveness.

With some trepidation then, I prepared them for a study of our schoolyard and the adjacent vacant land. The grade 7’s would investigate biodiversity for the Interactions in the Environment science unit and the grade 8’s would review the above, plus collect plant and water specimens for investigation with microscopes for the Cells unit.

Prior to going outdoors, we reviewed the expectations. Each small group would carry a clipboard, worksheets, scrap paper, pencils, measuring tapes or metre sticks and numerous zip-lock bags for collecting samples. Members of each group were to stay together and work together, solving problems on their own if possible.

I knew this class might be a bit challenging in an outdoor setting because of the struggles we’d had with listening skills in the classroom. But it was much worse than expected. Groups split up, metre sticks were used as swords, pencils got lost, and worksheets didn’t get filled out properly. And, that was just in the schoolyard! With thirty years as a classroom teacher under my belt, and with considerable experience at outdoor education centres, leadership centres and summer camps over the previous thirty-five years, I had no idea a group could be so frustrating. Despite the schoolyard behaviour, we moved to the adjacent vacant land and continued our study. When we finished our work and lined up at the school door to go back inside, I shared with them my dismay at their blatant disrespect for their peers, for me, and for the learning opportunity, which they had just spoiled. I told them that I had never had such a challenging group in all my years teaching outdoors, and that my experience that day was much like trying to herd cats. They knew Iwas upset, so they followed my instructions to return to class, sit down,open their reading books and remain silent.

I sat down at my desk to plan my lecture on respect and listening skills. After fifteen minutes, I asked for their attention.

Instead of my lecture though, I instinctively asked them to share what was good and what wasn’t so good about their outdoor learning experience. A few students offered the correct observations about poor listening skills and a general lack of following instructions. A couple of students suggested that the hands-on learning was a lot of fun. Then, the comment I’ll never forget: “Mr. D. – that was the best science class I’ve ever had!”

I paused. It was obvious that many other students felt the same. “Why then,” I asked, “were you so out of control out there?” It took some time, but some students shared that they seldom, if ever, went outdoors for anything but recess and gym class. They just couldn’t control themselves with the perceived freedom; it was too much like recess, despite having clipboards and worksheets in hand.

Even with this frustrating outing, the learning that followed was substantial. We spent many quality hours preparing plants for pressing, identifying species, mapping study plots with species variety, comparing schoolyard plots with vacant land plots, preparing slides for looking at samples through microscopes, identifying microscopic invertebrates, and preparing reports for presentation. Just one afternoon of outdoor learning provided plenty of extended learning opportunities in the classroom, and set up anticipation for future forays into outdoor experiential education.

In fact, the outdoors became our classroom without walls. Students began to ask if we could go outside to learn. We did. Over the course of the year, we left the classroom for language, math, history, geography, science, physical and health education, and the arts. The outdoors became a natural place to learn. And they became better learners as a result.

 

Benefits, Barriers, Basics and Beyond

As suggested above, there are dozens of benefits to outdoor experiential education. Students get more exercise, they socialize more, co-operate more and learn more.

They are exposed to new venues for learning where staff can share their expertise. Some students, who might find desk learning a bit of a struggle, shine in the outdoors; they often take leadership roles in groups – something they would not normally do inside. In my experience, students become motivated to work well together so that they don’t lose their outdoor learning opportunities.

The different venues open up different ways of learning. Most will know of Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, (Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences,1993).

There are now nine recognized intelligences: logical-mathematical, spatial, linguistic, bodily-kinaesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic and existential. I am convinced that outdoor experiential education can support and enhance all nine intelligences.

Recently in education, differentiated instructionhas been touted as the way to reach more of our students. Take them outside, then! Some will thrive. Some will be challenged. All should benefit in their own ways.

There are, however, a few barriers to taking classes out regularly. A single permission form for a year of local outdoor excursions may not be allowed at some schools. On the other hand, many schools and boards are moving toward being “paperless,” so trip-specific permission forms could easily be completed electronically. Depending on administration, specific school and classroom compositions, the availability of volunteers may be a barrier. None are typically needed if you are staying on school property, and possibly if you are going “next door.” Other outdoor resources within walking distances would require volunteers. Individual schools and boards will have their specific requirements.

As is suggested by my “herding cats”experience, individual class dynamics will impact on the quantity and quality of outdoor experiences. Teachers must recognize the uniqueness of each class and the individuals within it, and plan accordingly. The reality is, some classes may not be able to get out as often as others. Regardless, the benefits of outdoor excursions will be palpable.Whether you’re a novice outdoor educator who needs support, or the experienced teacher who can provide that support, there are a few basics to keep in mind. The list below is a starting point. Adjust it as you see fit for each activity to suit your specific needs. The more experience you get at this, the easier it is.

  • Get to know your local resources, (schoolyard, woodlots, vacant land, urban studies opportunities, talented parents or other adults in the community who might be able to help you with specific aspects of outdoor learning).
  • Get to know your board and school policies and procedures for outdoor excursions; complete any required paperwork. Perhaps a generic permission form for occasional excursions close to school would suffice for those outdoor teaching opportunities that present themselves throughout the year.
  • Arrange for volunteers, if needed.
  • Know your students; what are their strengths and limitations?
  • Plan the activity for your chosen curriculum area and topic, and gather materials and supplies.
  • Carry out that plan; take those kids outside!
  • Debrief the students to find out what they liked and didn’t like, and what they understood and didn’t understand. This feedback will prove very useful for future outings.
  • Do follow-up activities to solidify learning.

 

Beyond the basics, here are some ideas for developing a network of outdoor educators within your school and district.

  • Consult with colleagues to learn the basics.
  • Share your ideas and experiences at regular meetings.
  • Create outdoor activity resource documents specific to your schoolyard and local resources, (saved on your school’s server, of course). All teachers can contribute to it.
  • Combine classes for some of your excursions. This is one way to team up experienced and inexperienced teachers, and more appropriate student groupings may be easier to arrange.
  • Be an advocate for outdoor experiential education whenever you can.

So, why bother?

From my years of experience in the outdoor education and recreation sectors, I’ve seen what a difference going outdoors can make. Beyond all the wonderful benefits stated in research, there’s something that happens to children when they spend time outdoors. Their eyes soften. They begin to see the world in a different way. They’re more centred and at peace. They discover a part of themselves they didn’t previously know. What more could you want for your students?The bottom line is, if you don’t make the small effort to take your kids outside, who will?


Greg Derbyshire is a recently retired classroom teacher with the Grand Erie District School Board in Ontario, Canada. His many and varied outdoor interests and pursuits continue to occupy much of his time. More recently, his interest in promoting the benefits of outdoor experiential education has inspired the creation of a new venture, It All Comes Naturally.

This article first appeared in Stepping Into Nature, a publication of The Back to Nature Network, a multisectoral coalition oforganizations and agencies working to connect children and families with nature. The Network was established with the support of the Ontario Trillium Foundation through a collaborative partnership between Royal Botanical Gardens, Parks and Recreation Ontario and Ontario Nature.

NGSS and Environmental Education

NGSS and Environmental Education

Use the Real World to Integrate Your Curriculum

In today’s test-driven schools, there’s little room for including the world outside the classroom in the curriculum, even though school is supposed to be based on the real world. And prepare us for it.

by Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor

HawkThis year I watched good classroom programs which involved and invested students in the learning they were doing come to a halt for several weeks so they could prepare for the standards tests. This, during what is the best teaching time of the school year: January through March, when there are very few breaks in the schedule, and teachers can concentrate on the delivery of curricula. Somehow, we have to wake up, get back to our senses, and use this time for learning.

That said, students do need to go out into the world to learn. Let’s look at two possibilities, the first in a stream, the other in a school yard. We’ll do the stream first, since it is the kind of place we ought to be going to. Then the school yard, since it is often the only alternative we have.

There are many places where students can find a streambank to explore. Or a wooded area; an open meadow; some place where they can see and count the organisms who live there. Then learn about them. These are wonderful places for students to engage new content via Active Learning. There is one, a small stream, near where I live. Here’s a list of some of those who live there: Salmon fry (very small, recently hatched, eat copepods); Copepods (eat algae and organic debris); Amphipods (eat organic debris, algae); Mayflies (eat algae, organic debris); Caddisflies (eat organic debris, algae, mayflies); Organic debris (this is dead and decomposing organisms on the streambed); and Algae (plants found on the streambed and submerged rocks). This list of organisms and information about them is abbreviated, mostly out of necessity; this is a blog, not a book!

Why Employ Active Learning?

Active learning is the best way for humans to learn. It entails having a learner-generated reason to find out something, and access to the resources which will help them find out. Finding plants and animals in a riparian area always stimulates students, and easily leads to conceptual learnings. Providing their teacher is comfortable with this way to learn. This is because noticing something in the world outside your body that catches your interest can, if you’re allowed to follow up on noticing, engage your prefrontal cortex and the machinery it employs in critical thinking. That builds brains. We need to do it.

Let’s say you find a stream near your school which has been restored, and supports a small salmon population. Your class can make a round trip to it in 20 minutes, which leaves time to make observations each time they visit. When they make a visit, they’ll group to study macroinvertebrates on the bottom of the stream, algae on the stream bottom and rocks, and animals living in the water column who will fit into a small net. Next, they’ll organize themselves to learn to identify the organisms they’ve found, and find out what the animals eat. This is an opening to several NGSS standards: Let’s look at four, one each from K-3, 4-5, 6-8, and 9-12. (I haven’t started this yet, but it should be doable. It’s all LS.) So, while they’re gathering data to build a food web, they can also be embarking on an integrated curriculum about diversity, thermal tolerance, diet, a John Steinbeck novel; whatever is coming up.

For K-3, look at K-LS1-1: From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes, in which students use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals (including humans) need to survive. In this case, building the food web helps students answer the question of what do living things need to survive. That might also lead to learning how some organisms not having enough to eat might affect their food web.

For 4-5, try 5-LS2-1: Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics, in which students develop a model to describe the movement of matter among plants, animals, decomposers, and the environment. In this case, when one species becomes scarce in its ecosystem, then is lost, this affects the movement of matter in its food web. In doing this, it also affects species diversity. This might lead to learning more about diversity, how we determine it, and what it provides for the species in a food web.

For 6-8, try MS-LS2-4: Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics, in which students construct an argument supported by empirical evidence that changes to physical or biological components of an ecosystem affect populations. This might lead to learning more about how their food web reflects ecosystems, and some of the biotic interactions which affect them. Middle school students might also use their food webs to approach another NGSS standard, MS-LS2-5: Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics, in which students evaluate competing design solutions for maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services. Again, they learn how to assess biodiversity, and apply those learnings to their food web.

For 9-12, try HS-LS2-6: Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics, in which students evaluate the claims, evidence, and reasoning that the complex interactions in ecosystems maintain relatively consistent numbers and types of organisms in stable conditions, but changing conditions may result in a new ecosystem. For instance, they can use their food web to learn about thermal tolerance, and how it might cause the loss of one or more species in their food web. Then they might even search the literature for current evidence that, as species move from one ecosystem to another due to the stressors involved in global warming, they are replaced by other species, more tolerant of the changed thermal regime.


Can you engage active learning?

All of these can be enhanced with lab and field activities. This is in addition to the learning each group of students engages. Because they’re learning about particulars they have engaged in a stream, these learnings will become part of a readily accessible conceptual schematum, rather than a smorgasbord of disconnected facts.

Pick one of these which doesn’t seem overpowering, look it up on the NGSS web site, and try it out. Read what the NGSS says about it, then think of what you understand of food webs, and see how you can put the two together. When you’ve done that, then see what area of science you will soon be teaching, and see how you can use the NGSS description plus what you know of your food web, to integrate all into a workable unit to teach.

While the NGSS documents don’t often refer to food webs, there are some references to them at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. You can just do a search for ‘food web’ to find them. I’ve used the labels and titles, and the descriptions from the NGSS site in this writing. But I’m uncomfortable with the bureaucratic way they describe a very vivacious, dynamic, interesting system. A food web is one place where much science can be effectively addressed. Then, instead of learning facts about systems, students develop conceptual schemata which tie many areas of science together in meaningful concepts, ideas of how the world works.

We’ll use the organisms I found at the stream near my home for the next step; and that is to build a food web for this riparian area. As in all studies like this, the data collected will apply to just my reach, not the whole stream. To be more confident that my sample represents the stream, I’d have to sample more reaches. This collected information can then be used to construct food webs for that extended reach of the stream. Here’s one for the stream near where I live. (I had to look in side channels and slow waters near the stream’s edge to find the fry. Then, lacking time to complete the sampling, I looked up their diets on the web. I used this information to construct the food web in Figure 1.)

Martin51516fig1

Figure 1. A Riparian Food Web. Elements of the food web are organized by trophic level.

 

While I’ve named each organism just once, I’ve grouped larvae, both young and mature, in one place, even though they might show up within more than one trophic level if I have considered all of the stages in their lives. And for some, there are more than one species gathered under a name. Considering all species and their life stages would make a more complex, but more informative food web if done with more attention to these details. You can take this as far as your students can comprehend or stand. Complexity increases comprehension up to a point. Beyond that, learners are on overload, and their work isn’t effective. This information/concept overload point is different for each student. You can overcome these differences in capacity by parceling out the work according to each student’s capacity and instructional level. And interest!

You’ll find that active learning is evident in the negotiations within groups as they sort out the pieces of their food webs. As they learn more details about the organisms, their conceptual understandings grow exponentially. And their food webs become more complex, and more meaningful.

Now, we’ll go to a school yard to build a food web. It may not be a riparian area, but it is an area we can study nonetheless. (When I taught inmate students in the college program at the Oregon State Penitentiary, they were able to discover and report data on food webs found in the prison’s exercise yard, an ecosystem where there were no trees, shrubs, or streams. We, too, can do this, without going to prison.) Natural areas are the best to study, but as a workable alternative, you can do an effective study in your own school yard. For lots of us, this is a more workable alternative than field trips to a stream or forest. Take a look. What can you find? Jot down their names, or make names up. (As you learn their actual names, update your food web. This tactic works well with students.) Make an initial food web from your observations, then amplify this with information students research. (Food webs are easier to assess in fall and spring, when the organisms are there in greatest number. However, as compost piles remain warm in their interior, you can probably assess them any time. Be sure to cover them back up!)

Here is one I made up as an example. It’s based on what you might find in a compost pile in a corner of the school yard. If you’ve ever rummaged a compost pile, you’ll know that this is a much simpler food web than you’d find in most compost.

Martin51516fig2


Figure 2. A Schoolyard Food Web.

 

Food webs, by themselves, provide a visible platform for thinking about organisms and their ecosystems in a dynamic, conceptual way. Both species diversity and thermal tolerance can be effectively introduced via a food web. Thermal tolerance can affect diversity as species move from an ecosystem where temperatures have gone from within their thermal tolerance range to one which offers a better thermal regime. Diversity can attenuate the effects of thermal tolerance limits by reducing the effects of losing a food web species. The more diverse the population, the better the chance that other species will utilize the food sources that the departing species exploited. And might be exploited by the same consumer which consumed the species which departed. Like the visible, dynamic structure of a drawn food web, these two biological phenomena effectors of ecosystem stability live in a dynamic relationship with one another.

So, what will they do with their food webs? In the next two blogs, let’s look at diversity first, then thermal tolerance. Both will provide valuable insights into the effects of global warming on living things; which is something our students need to become experts in.

jimphoto3This is a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests, and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”